I listened recently to the Unbelievable podcast on the subject of William Tyndale. (Unbelievable? Why William Tyndale’s Bible changed the world: Melvyn Bragg and Ben Virgo) Tyndale lived from 1494-1536, during a time in which illiteracy was the rule, not the exception. The Bible was read only by the educated elite.
The 1600’s was also a time of great corruption in the church itself. The church was the largest employer in the land. It had great power, and it was corrupt. The vast majority of people, including clergy, were ignorant of Scripture. According to the experts on the Unbelievable podcast, many clergymen didn’t even know the 10 commandments. This was a very dark period in church history, the culmination of centuries of church/state alliance that twisted the Gospel to serve the power of kings and popes who lived like kings.
Tyndale was influenced by Martin Luther who also a rebel that opposed the church consensus and power structure of the day. Tyndale was influenced by John Wycliffe who a century before had translated the Bible into middle English, but the church opposed the “unauthorized” translation and rejected it. The church even declared Wycliffe a heretic after his death, and many of the Wycliffe Bibles were burned and not widely distributed.
Tyndale made it his life’s mission to translate the Bible into English for the common man. Though Wycliffe had already done that, the Bible was still virtually inaccessible to the vast majority of people, and even clergy were ignorant of it. He suffered exile for his efforts and was eventually arrested, jailed, convicted of heresy, executed by strangulation, and his body was burned at the stake.
We celebrate Tyndale now as a martyr for the faith who took up his cross and followed Christ even unto death, a leader of the reformation that led believers out of the corruption of the organized religion of his day.
He and other “rebels” paved the way for the Bible to be made available worldwide in every language spoken on earth. Tyndale now is the name of a major Christian publishing company. Luther is the namesake of a major church denomination. Wycliffe is the name of the organization that translates the Bible into the rarest languages of the farthest flung tribes of the world.
Just as Jesus opposed the Pharisees and Sadducees in the 1st Century, Tyndale opposed the popes and bishops in the 16th Century. Just as the Pharisees and Sadducees sought to stop Jesus and had him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for spreading the Gospel, the popes and bishops tried to stop Tyndale, had him arrested, tried, convicted and executed for translating the Bible including the words Jesus preached into English.
The main opposition to Jesus, and Tyndale, came from the religious leaders. Those religious leaders employed the power of the state to oppose the spread of the Gospel (in Jesus’s case) and the spread of the translation of the Bible into English (in Tyndale’s case).
When Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify [Jesus]?”, the chief priests said, “We have no king but Caesar!” (John 19:15) I think about these things in light of the current religious and cultural climate.
Tyndale was viewed as a rebel and, a renegade, a heretic. He opposed the status quo, including the status quo within the church. He was despised. He was opposed by the church. He could not even return to his homeland, England, for fear of his life, and he eventually lost his life to the church and state authorities of his day
Today, the church and state are no longer joined in power as in Tyndale’s day. Many modern Christians in the United States rue the loss of power and advantage, while modern secularists would like to negate completely all influence of religion on society. If Hilary Clinton had been elected, instead of Trump, most Christians feared an incremental loss of power and influence in the affairs of our nation. Christians have embraced Trump as the man to fight the tide of growing secularism and maintain Christianity in that position of power and influence.
But is that a good thing? We all know of the challenges, difficulties and even persecution of the church that result from state government that is opposed to the church, but history suggests that the confluence of state power with church governance leads to corruption of the church. Would we rather accept corruption in the church to avoid challenge, difficulty and persecution?
Listening to Tyndale’s story, makes me wonder, “What about the church today is like the church in Tyndale’s time?” What influence lingers or has crept in to modern Christianity that will cause future believers to look back and wonder at the corruption of the 21st Century church?
Who are the heretics of our time who will be hailed as heroes in future generations?